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Tribes try to shield elders and their knowledge from virus

Associated Press

As Monica Harvey watched, crowds flocked to a Sam’s Club in northern Arizona where she works, picking shelves clean of toilet paper and canned goods. Native American seniors couldn’t move fast enough, and Harvey saw their faces fall when they reached empty shelves.

The Navajo woman wanted to help tribal elders get household staples without leaving their homes and risking exposure to COVID-19, so she started Defend Our Community, a group that delivers supplies.

Tribes across the nation are working to protect elder members who serve as honored links to customs passed from one generation to the next. The efforts to deliver protective gear, meals and vaccines are about more than saving lives. Tribal elders often possess unique knowledge of language and history that is all the more valuable because tribes commonly pass down their traditions orally. That means losing elders to the virus could wipe out irreplaceable pieces of culture.

“When you lose an elder, you lose a part of yourself,” said Harvey, who lives in Leupp, Arizona, east of Flagstaff. “You lose a connection to history, our stories, our culture, our traditions.”

Harvey remembers her own grandfather explaining the stories behind Navajo songs and teaching her Navajo words from the songs. She often listened to her grandparents speaking Navajo while she practiced the words under her breath.

In Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation has increased food distributions to elders and offered financial aid to those who were struggling to pay rent or utilities. Concern for elders is also apparent in the tribe’s COVID-19 vaccine-distribution plans. Participants and workers in the tribe’s elder program are first in line for the shots, along with hospital workers and first responders. Next are those whose first language is Cherokee and others considered “tribal treasures,” an honor given to members who keep Cherokee art, language and other culture alive through their work.

An effort among the Blackfeet in Montana is helping the tribe’s 600-plus members connect with elders who need support. Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot Nation is providing its citizens with masks and telemedicine, delivering meals to their doors and organizing home visits to give flu vaccines.

“Elders are like libraries. Losing one is like a library burning down,” said Loren Racine, creator of a Facebook page offering help in the Blackfeet community.

Roy Boney Jr., who manages a Cherokee language program, said the vast majority of Cherokee speakers are elders. They make up a small pool of people the program relies on to teach the language he calls the “beating heart” of Cherokee identity.

“For decades our language has been taken from us through forced assimilation,” Boney said. “Elders hold our history and culture but also our language. … Our elders are precious.”

Almost half of the Cherokee who received care from the tribe’s health services but died from the coronavirus were fluent Cherokee speakers. Losing even a handful of speakers can be devastating for language preservation and other cultural practices, Boney said.

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